Choosing Our Transportation Future: Secretary Foxx on Moving Beyond Traffic

I finally finished Beyond Traffic, DOT's new report on the next 30 years of our transportation system. At more than 300+ pages, it's chockfull of information, inferences and ideas for consideration by policymakers and stakeholders in transportation.

Many of its findings are familiar and compelling. NextGen technologies and their effects on air traffic control and logistics, for example, have great potential to improve aviation performance. Governance of new shared-use mobility platforms will have to be nimble and clear, so as to promote innovative business models and technologies while also regulating them to protect public safety and security. And demographic and marketplace changes - especially driven by millennials less eager to drive everywhere - make for exciting challenges and opportunities for transportation planners.

There are also some disappointments. The door is left enticingly open to alternative futures in transportation, starkly illustrated by a brief and dark scenario-building exercise toward the end of the report which sketches out a "status quo" policy future drifting into gridlock. But the future of land-development appears to be taken for granted: More suburban sprawl, similar to patterns that proliferated in previous decades. This assumption is especially clear in the chapter on "How We Move" complete with a graph projecting suburban dominance in a graph on page 26. This may be the case, and in fact I agree with the report that given the way we've hardwired the nation thus far there little escaping it. However, it glosses over a lot of variation in suburban development and understates the urban renaissance in many cities. I live on a suburban lot myself. However, it is blocks away from a rail stop on one side, retail on the other, and covers a modest fraction-of-an-acre. What kinds of suburbs will we see in the future? Compact, mixed use ones like mine? Large-lot, monoculture spread-out ones? The report glosses over such distinctions.

There is also a bit of an obsession with self-driving cars, as underscored by the Secretary of Transportation arriving at a "fireside chat" with Google CEO Eric Schmidt in such a vehicle to unveil this report. I know there's a lot of enthusiasm about this technology, however it should be tempered by the long time frame before large-scale commercialization. As the report admits, "Full automation...could be commercially available within the next 20 years." Throw in the fact that fleet turnover takes about 14 years and you end up wondering why this has such a high profile in this report. And yet the report speculates that use of this technology could "lead to increased settlement of exurban areas..." reinforcing its sprawl bias. It's also frustrating to see little discussion of the way these automation technologies could improve public transportation, which could benefit from cost-cutting and increased efficiency.

The report really shines in discussing climate, and provides ample evidence that "As much as it is a cause, our transportation system can also be a casualty of climate change." There is disturbing information about the vulnerability of our transportation system, such as the fact that "a two-foot rise in sea level could submerge more than 600 miles of track along the East Coast, and some of the busiest airports in America." And the Administration is tackling the challenge through initiatives such as a $3.59 billion grant to 40 resiliency-boosting transit projects in the region hit by Superstorm Sandy. These will protect underground pump rooms, seal street-level vents and manholes, and otherwise harden transit infrastructure against storm surges. This is also where one of President Obama's most enduring legacies is covered - the doubling of fuel economy standards for our car and truck fleet, which is also driving increased availability of hybrid and electric vehicles. This was a bold move, one that Presidents and Congresses lacked the guts to accomplish for decades previously. It's a huge win for energy and climate security. Thankfully, the report goes into some detail about ideas for building on this legacy, including encouragement of mode shifting as well as moderation of travel demand through means such as congestion pricing, incentives for more compact, location-efficient development and greater use of teleworking (as I'm doing today) by employers.

In reviewing the evidence about investments in transportation in recent years, another part of the President's transportation legacy becomes clear -- ARRA, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, delivered a lot of good projects and lessons. Graphs in this report show spikes in federal investment pursuant to that act, pulling up local and state investment trendlines too. And the TIGER (Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery) program established then is still demonstrating that programs which spur virtuous competition among prospective grantees can leverage public dollars to great effect (alhough I wanted more detail about the assertion on p. 170 that "...DOT...has faced challenges measuring program outcomes."). ARRA was transformative, as at least one author has documented.

And yet I can't help but end by noting the biggest disappointment with the report. It seems too timid when it comes to aligning investments with the projections and choices ahead. For example, while they are cheap and cost-effective investments, I notice that the chapter covering nonmotorized transportation is the only modal one that doesn't call explicitly for more investment. I also note tensions in the treatment of tying performance measurement to funding. On the one hand, laudably on p. 183 the report recommends "...objectives that tie performance to incentives or consequences for recipients of federal funding." On the other, on p. 167 it states that "In some areas, achievement of perfomance targets will be tied to a small portion of federal funding for states.[emphasis added]" This second statement reminds me of a post I wrote in 2013 about a state DOT campaign to push back against the commonsense idea that investments should be aligned with performance outcomes.

And this, I guess, is sadly my biggest takeaway from this report. It is huge, it is replete with good ideas and fresh advice (More examples: The caution against seeing P3s as a panacea on p. 173 and the staccato series of intriguing ideas about roles on the third-to-last page). And it gives short shrift to the importance of reforming the whole transportation program to make it more fiscally responsible and performance-driven. Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog did a nice job of highlighting this too. I look forward to a bolder and richer conversation about getting that done, and to adding to the President's transportation legacy.